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There are three excellent special schools in my constituency, Highfurlong, Woodlands and Park. They all co-operate, and in some instances there is very close collaboration. One of the schools is adjacent to a mainstream local authority school. I have visited all three regularly, and visited Highfurlong very recently. A mixed class there also included children from a local primary school and a local high school. The benefits of working together and using the same facilities were felt by both the children with disabilities and special educational needs and those without.

As I have said, we should not become too hung up on the struggle between good and evil. While many of us accept past criticisms of special schools policies—from Baroness Warnock and others—we should not assume that one set of false absolutes should be replaced with another.

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Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I want to speak in favour of new clauses 4 and 5. New clause 4 relates to the provision of education for children with statements of special educational needs. Subsection (3) of the proposed new section 316 refers to ensuring that a child with special educational needs

There is no trench warfare between mainstream and special schools. It is acknowledged that each child has individual needs, on which will depend whether that child is placed in a mainstream or a special school.

The wishes of the parent are very important. New subsection (3)(b) refers to

which is indeed an important consideration in mainstream schools. It is essential for proper provision to be made for the support of a child with special needs in a mainstream classroom, especially in practical terms. The practical tasks involved in looking after a child who is a wheelchair user and is unable to transfer from the wheelchair to an ordinary chair, or who needs a standing frame, are very time-consuming. There must be sufficient teaching and welfare support in the classroom, so that the education of the other children is not compromised.

New subsection (5), which has already been mentioned several times, states:

New subsection (4) is central to the decision that parents must make. Many parents, particularly if the child with special needs is their first and they have no recent experience of schools—perhaps no experience since they were at school themselves—will not know which is the best placement for their child. They will need to be presented with all the options and all the information that is available. They should be able to visit both local mainstream schools and special schools to gain an impression of provision there. They should be able to speak to head teachers, past teachers and assistants, and to members of the education authority, so that they can reach an informed decision about the best provision for their particular child.

I worked in a special school for many years during the 1970s and 1980s. The first thing that comes to mind is that it is impossible to generalise about children with special needs, and that therefore provision cannot be generalised. There was a fair amount of movement between the school where I worked, which is not there any more, and local mainstream schools, in both directions and with varying degrees of success. Again, it is impossible to generalise about whether movement from special school to mainstream or from mainstream to special school will succeed. It is necessary to take account of the individual child.

I recall one child with brittle bones who was highly intelligent. Her parents wanted her to try her luck in a mainstream school. She acquired a large degree of independence in a special school, because one of the rules was that, whatever a child’s disability, that child should enjoy as much independence as possible. Unfortunately, when the girl went to a mainstream school, she was seen as a novelty: everyone wanted to help her, particularly the other children, who would
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fetch and carry for her. She lost much of the independence that she gained in the special school.

There was an enormous spectrum of disability at the school where I worked, from complex conditions affecting mobility such as Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, Friedrich’s ataxia and spastic quadriplegia to disabilities that are not visible, such as chronic asthma, diabetes and heart conditions. In the middle of the spectrum are all sorts of other conditions which require very sensitive handling.

Special schools provide much more than education. Because they are so used to dealing with children with profound special needs, they are sensitive even to changes of mood, and to how a child may be affected by an incident in the classroom. They can avert episodes of children being unable to cope. It is that experience, built up over many years, that is so valuable to children, in terms not just of education but of emotional support. It enables them to cope with life as well as learning.

I recall another child. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) observed that people are not always conscious that children with special needs are often highly intelligent. There is an assumption that they are of low intelligence, which is wrong. One of our pupils, aged 16, had very mild cerebral palsy which affected only his speech. We discovered belatedly that his own family did not realise that he understood what they were saying to him. Because they did not understand what he was saying to them, it did not occur to them that his thought processes and intellect were perfectly normal. He reached the age of 16 before we were able to discover that, and to explain to the family that they could speak to him perfectly normally, as they spoke to everyone else, and he would understand: the mechanics of speech were his only problem.

Speech and language have been mentioned several times today. Even in the 1970s, there was a chronic, long-standing shortage of speech and language therapists. Since I have been in the House, I have conducted some research into why that might be. It is very difficult to get to the bottom of it. We have plenty of colleges and courses involving speech and language. They are full—they are not short of students—and they have a high success rate. Many students qualify, and there is not an unusually high drop-out rate. The mystery is, where do all the students go when they have qualified? They do not seem to go into the national health service, because my primary care trust cannot recruit speech and language therapists, and they do not go into special schools. The challenge for all of us is to redirect speech and language graduates to special schools and the NHS, where there is an enormous need for speech and language therapy. Whatever other problems they may have, if children cannot communicate with people whom they meet, that is almost the worst handicap that they could suffer.

Like the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, I have three superb special schools in my constituency: Corbets Tey, Dycorts and Ravensbourne. None of them, thankfully, is threatened with closure, which would be unthinkable. I cannot think of a single pupil in any of those schools who would be better off in a mainstream school. The children are flourishing, and their educational and social needs are being met. The
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schools also provide a support system for families. They often have great difficulty in conducting anything resembling what we would recognise as a normal daily life, particularly if they have children on the autistic spectrum. One function of those schools is giving additional support to parents and siblings. With the best will in the world, mainstream schools—given how busy they are and the enormous demands and pressures that are placed on them—do not have the time to provide such extra services to families with children with special needs.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend made some important remarks a moment ago about the need to improve and to maximise recruitment of speech and language therapists, and to get them into the national health service and, in many cases, special schools. This has been a good and stimulating debate so far, and I want to underline her point by saying that it is incumbent on all of us in public service to re-double our efforts on that front. It always strikes me that, when a popular local school or hospital is to close, there is a ready supply of articulate protestors. However, when a special school facility is to close and that closure will affect only a relatively small number of children, many people either are not aware of that threat and shortage of specialists, or, frankly, do not care enough about it. So Members across the political spectrum have a duty to step up efforts to meet the challenge.

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. We are all only too well aware of the shortage of such specialists. All of us do whatever we can, wherever we can, to encourage the greater availability of speech and language therapists. Even in the 1970s, children with speech and language problems in my school had a visiting speech and language therapist, who was able to give each child a quarter of an hour a week. Anyone who knows children with speech and language problems knows that that is hopelessly inadequate. So we all need to work very hard on the issue.

I turn to new clause 5, which deals with restrictions on special school closures. As I said, it would be unthinkable for any of the special schools in my constituency to close. New clause 5(2) states:

I should be surprised to learn that there is a single constituency in the entire country in which special school places are available. Most such schools have no spare capacity and are unable to take more children who would like to be placed there. It is highly unlikely that any area has sufficient spare capacity to enable a special school to be closed in the light of the caveat in the new clause. That caveat is important in protecting special schools and the enormously good work that they do.

I urge hon. Members in all parts of the House to support not just new clause 4, but new clause 5.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): I confess to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) that, at one time, I was
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dogmatic. I was dogmatic for a brief period—I promise that it was brief—when I came out of a special residential environment. I spent six years in integrated education for the first time, on day-release from work and at evening class, before going into full-time integrated education for the first time at university. I was dogmatic because my experience had been a difficult one. My schooling had not offered the academic achievement that we would want for our own children, and, as with so many schools, the physical environment left something to be desired.

In the 1960s and 1970s, special schools, be they day or residential, were not what they are today. One precise reason why Baroness Warnock has changed her mind on this issue—and why, by the time that I became Secretary of State for Education and Employment, I began to see that it was absolutely crucial not to be dogmatic—is that the world has changed.

When I went to primary school, most of those whom I was at school with had just one special need: they could not see. By the time that that school closed because the number who simply could not see had dropped, the incidence of multiple disability—the multiple special needs that children had—had grown to the point where that type of education could no longer cope. So the school closed not because people wanted to eliminate a facility, but because it needed to be re-shaped for a different era, in which medical science had eliminated the original causes of special need, but had also kept alive children who previously would not have been in school at all, because they would not have reached school age.

2.15 pm

So we are dealing with a different environment, and I appeal to the House, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) did, to come together. None of us wants a system that does not take account of the special needs of the individual child and their family. Various issues have been raised this afternoon, such as the proper training of teachers, professional development, the training of learning support workers—there are now 110,000 such workers in mainstream schools throughout the country; they did not exist nine years ago—and the ability of learning mentors to develop, alongside special educational needs co-ordinators, the specialism of guiding and supporting families and others in the school environment. We need to recognise that those issues are crucial.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools on intervening to get the statistics right, and I believe that the Government are listening and responding. However, I have two or three regrets that I want to put on the record. In 1998, when I was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, we moved towards regional planning. I believe strongly that, without it, we cannot maintain centres of excellence, expertise and the necessary facilities. Even with the best resources in the world, no single education authority can possibly provide for every specialism and every need. In any case, the level of expertise across the country is limited. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) described what my own authority is doing, but there are authorities such as Derbyshire that come very close
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to being exemplars. It is at the local level that an understanding must be shown of people’s specific needs. However, we can do things at a regional level that cannot be done at the purely local. I now regret that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 did not place greater emphasis on ensuring that that happened.

Anne Snelgrove: My right hon. Friend is making an important point, and I have been of the same opinion for years. Small unitary authorities, in particular, are unable to provide the breadth of special needs education that larger authorities such as Derbyshire can provide. I hope that the Minister is listening to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Derbyshire has understood the message that is coming across loud and clear in this very good debate: unless we train teachers and assistants properly, and unless they are prepared for what is likely to happen, there will be resistance to sensible integration. If integration is done badly, it should not be done at all. We therefore have to get the balance right in providing training and expertise in centres of excellence. If special schools that can cater for specific requirements are no longer available, the expertise will die with them.

Providing good teaching in the classroom means providing adequate and supportive resources not just in the school itself, but during out-of-school activities, in order to make integration a reality. I took slight umbrage at the beginning of this debate at the idea that inclusion is a dogma, which is very silly. Inclusion is not a dogma; it is a sensible objective, which is to be met by not attempting to include children in mainstream education where doing so would be detrimental to them and to those around them.

That raises one further point. Because multiple disability needs and special needs are very different, we have to adapt the way in which we behave towards and think about them, in order to deal with those different layers. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned the non-statemented special educational needs child. I hope that the Government will place greater emphasis on supporting schools in that regard. What my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South said on the issue—it was repeated by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson)—is absolutely true, and, although it pains me to say so, I also agreed with quite a lot of what the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) said.

Mr. Hayes: Would the right hon. Gentleman join the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) in calling for an independent review of some of these issues? I have in mind particularly the issue of non-statemented special needs, which were mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and which the right hon. Gentleman rightly amplifies now.

Mr. Blunkett: I am hoping that the Education and Skills Committee review that is taking place, and the Ofsted thematic inspection will also highlight what needs to be done in a constant monitoring review. I
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learned as Secretary of State that monitoring is even more necessary than vision or legislation in order to achieve anything. That was the point that I was going to make about the 2001 Act—we left it with a hope and prayer that people would do the right thing, but limited progress has been made in the past five years.

In supporting schools with a high number of special educational needs pupils, we need to recognise the point that has been made this afternoon that such needs can be passed from one generation to another, not just genetically but through the gross reinforcement of disadvantage that often leads to the exaggeration and emphasis of special educational need.

I found out that two of my older sons had quite severe dyslexia at a time when the teaching profession dismissed dyslexia as though it were a middle-class fad. Because I was emerging into the middle class and have always been tenacious, I managed to engage with the Dyslexia Institute—it has now changed its name—which did a superb job in finding out what was wrong. I do not think that my sons would mind me saying that the change in confidence, self-esteem and behaviour was dramatic once what was required was identified. Early identification, sensible assessment, proper decision making about the right environment, and training and support for teachers are all more important than any disagreement over whether an individual school should close. I hope that that will be the message from today’s debate.

Mrs. Dorries: We have all been elected to represent the most disadvantaged in our constituencies. From that perspective, and in the spirit of consensus, I hope that the Minister will accept that any points that I make are not party political but made with the view of representing those of my constituents in the unfortunate position of not receiving appropriate educational provision.

I wish to speak about new clause 5, with brief reference to new clause 4. I notice that the Minister mentioned the number of schools that the Conservative Government closed before 1997, and he was right to do so. All Governments have made mistakes in education, and it is about time we all started getting it right. However, I am reminded of the point made by Baroness Warnock when she described the need to close down special schools because too many children were being isolated in special provision. She said that the pendulum had swung too far. Perhaps not all those 200 schools needed to close, but too many have and that has resulted in a crisis, which is why hon. Members are receiving so many representations on the issue.

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